Seemingly every week, there’s a new headline touting a different diet as the ultimate path to health. Paleo, plant-based, keto, Mediterranean — they’ve all promised health with a capital “H.” Yet one diet recommends what the other prohibits, so it can be pretty confusing to decipher what, exactly, “healthy eating” means.
We’re here to simplify things, because if you don’t know what healthy eating is, how can you be expected to do it? Keep reading for the pain-free scoop on the what, when, why, and how of balanced nutrition.
What Is Healthy Eating?
Let’s start with what healthy eating is not. Healthy eating is not a fad. It’s not a cleanse. It’s not a “cabbage-only-on-Tuesdays” or a “protein-shake-for-breakfast-and-lunch” diet. In fact, in the traditional sense of the word, healthy eating is not a “diet” at all, because diets are unsustainable.
Instead, healthy eating is part of an overall lifestyle. It describes an eating pattern that includes a variety of foods that provide the macro and micro nutrients needed for optimal physiological function and sustained metabolic health. While you can technically survive off a “junk food” diet, healthy eating does so much more — it keeps you satiated, energized, and protects against malnutrition and chronic disease. In short, healthy eating helps you live better, longer.
The 3 Key Principles of Healthy Eating
Now that you know what healthy eating is, the big question becomes how healthy eating can be adopted into your life.
Put simply, healthy eating comes down to three key “levers” of nutritional agency:
- When you eat (and when you don’t)
- What you eat
- How much you eat
Let’s explore these levers further.
WHEN You Eat
When we eat is a crucial — and highly overlooked — piece of the nutrition puzzle. By being intentional with the timing of our food intake, we can actually trigger spontaneous caloric restriction and weight loss. And the easiest way to do that is through fasting.
Fasting may sound difficult, but the truth is that everyone fasts. Assuming you’re not getting up to eat in the middle of the night, most people fast from the time they finish dinner (or a late-night snack) to the time they have breakfast, for an average of about 9.25 hours a day. However, research shows that extending this natural fast to 12 or even 16 hours has wide-ranging health benefits, from cancer prevention to better glycemic control and a reduced risk of diabetes.
WHAT Should You Eat?
What we eat can be a tricky subject to tackle, but there are a few best practices that have been shown to enhance healthspan as well as lifespan. And, encouragingly, if you do most of these things on most days, there’s plenty of research to indicate that you’ll fare pretty well. Rather than getting hung up on the minutiae of dietary advice, focus on eating well 80% of the time. You’ll still get most of the health benefits, and you can use that energy to improve other facets of your health.
#1. Eat Whole Foods
In nearly every corner of the world, ultra-processed foods have become a mainstay of the human diet. While convenient and often inexpensive, these foods come with a heavy price tag in terms of sacrificed health and a higher risk of obesity and other health conditions.
Conversely, focusing on minimally processed foods (think roasted potatoes instead of potato chips) is the best way to boost the nutritional value of your diet. In fact, prioritizing whole foods will make following the rest of these recommendations a breeze!
#2. Limit Added Sugars
Added sugar is perhaps the biggest culprit in the global deterioration of metabolic health. From hormonal changes to nutrient depletion to cavities to type 2 diabetes, added sugar wreaks havoc on the body. While the occasional treat is okay, it’s best to avoid making it a habit.
#3. Pump Up Your Protein Intake
Diets high in protein have been shown to increase satiety and aid in weight loss. They also help build and maintain muscle, which is essential for metabolic health and basic functioning as we age (think avoiding falls and having the strength to carry groceries).
Because there’s a limit to how much protein can be absorbed in one sitting, aim to include protein-rich foods (such as meat, seafood, soy, dairy, and nuts) with each meal.
#4. Include Plenty of Fiber
Studies show that fiber is protective against cardiovascular disease, infectious diseases, type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers — and it helps you feel fuller for longer. Unfortunately, most people do not get nearly enough fiber, but incorporating some heavy hitters like oats, legumes, raspberries, almonds, and even air-popped popcorn should do the trick.
#5. Balance Your Fats
After years of persecution, dietary fat has found its redemption arc as an essential macronutrient that is vital for our wellbeing. However, not all fats are created equal. Omega-3s (found in fatty fish, oysters, chia seeds, and walnuts) and omega-6s (found in high amounts in industrialized oils, such as safflower and soybean oils) are both essential fats, but too few omega-3s and too many omega-6s can actually cause inflammation and lead to metabolic disease. To keep a good ratio, refer back to “rule” #1 and stick to whole foods whenever possible.
HOW MUCH Should You Eat?
How much we eat is, for many of us, the hardest thing to control in our nutrition. Online calculators, although helpful, provide a rough estimate at best. And even if we were to use those numbers, caloric needs would still vary wildly depending on factors like activity level, current weight and body composition, stage of life, and whether you’re trying to lose, gain, or maintain weight.
So, instead of focusing specifically on the quantity, focus on appropriately reducing your eating window and making whole, minimally processed, and satiating foods the cornerstone of your diet. When you improve the timing and quality of what you eat, you are more likely to do away with cravings and cut down on caloric intake, thus allowing your body to naturally settle into an energetic balance of sorts — no deprivation required!
How to Start Building Healthy Eating Habits
Knowledge is the first step, and the next step is putting that knowledge into practice. As you integrate healthy eating into your life, try shifting your focus from short-term outcomes (like how you look) to long-term health and longevity.
Here are a few tactics for making healthy eating your nutritional homebase:
- Buy fewer packed foods and replace them with whole foods.
- Eat the rainbow.
- Think about what you can add to your meals, not take away.
- Build a mindful eating environment, starting with a dedicated eating space.
- Practice mindful eating by slowing down and paying attention to physical sensations while you eat.
- Check in with your hunger-fullness scale, especially if you’re craving a more indulgent food.
- Remove distractions during mealtimes.
- Shoot for at least 12–16 hours in a fasted state — fasting buddies (and Zero!) can help keep you accountable.
Healthy eating may seem complicated, but it doesn’t have to be. At its essence, we want to focus on eating a wide variety of whole foods, as close as possible to what can be found in nature, in an amount that is satiating but not overly so, and within a condensed eating window. By attending to these three principles of nutrition — quality, quantity, timing — you will be on your way to improving your longevity and health span.